College of Science & Engineering

Introduction Biology Graduate Program WWU

Program Overview

Graduate Education

The primary goal of our Master’s program is to provide you with a research experience that develops the background and skills needed for you to thrive in a variety of professional careers in biology. To achieve this goal, you will undertake coursework and research that is aligned with your interests and the expertise of your advisor.


The thesis research project is the cornerstone of the Thesis MS degree, and is intended to be a meaningful project that advances a biology discipline. Under the guidance of your Thesis Committee, you will develop a thesis project. The department has an active research environment that spans many biological fields (e.g., cell biology, developmental biology, ecology, evolution, genetics, and marine biology), spatial scales from molecules to ecosystems, and habitats from marine to montane.


As a graduate student in Biology, you must take several courses comprising a core curriculum that will help you successfully complete your degree and build your abilities to function as an independent scientist. In addition to these required core courses, you select topical courses in Biology and other departments (e.g., Chemistry, Environmental Science, Geology) to broaden your conceptual knowledge.

Departmental Commitment

The department is committed to providing you with an excellent experiential education, enabling you to become a well-trained biologist.

Departmental Information

For general and contact information, please visit the Biology Department website.


The timeline below (Figure [fig:timeline]) provides a quick reference for important dates and deadlines, as well as suggested targets for completing specific stages of your graduate studies. Specific deadlines relating to the final quarter are available on the Graduate School’s website.

Roles and Responsibilities

Guidelines for Graduate Students

You should recognize your own role in the program, and proactively seek advice and support during your graduate program.

Graduate students should:

  • quickly become familiar with the Biology Graduate Handbook, and department and university policies pertaining to graduate students (e.g., qualifying for TAships, qualifying for financial aid, required forms for the department and Graduate School, scheduling the thesis defense, and formatting the thesis).

  • be proactive in setting up committee meetings, planning research, writing the proposal, collecting data, conducting analyses, and writing the thesis.

  • be aware of deadlines and complete required university paperwork before posted deadlines.

  • schedule a committee meeting, and meet with the committee every quarter.

  • meet frequently, as needed (weekly to monthly) to discuss coursework, progress on proposal, grants and funding, fieldwork, data analysis, and preparation of the thesis.

  • maintain frequent and open communication with your advisor, committee members and outside sources, if appropriate.

  • inform your advisor in advance about extended periods of reduced availability or complete unavailability, and make plans for how to communicate during such absences.

  • develop a timeline in consultation with your thesis advisor and thesis committee.

  • discuss and set clear expectations for student and faculty responsibilities regarding response times and turn-around on drafts, proposals, thesis sections, and presentations. Give your advisor sufficient time to review materials before deadlines.

  • seek the advice of experienced graduate students, and offer advice to fellow grad students.

  • take the initiative to research alternate ideas and methods, as thesis research progresses.

  • conform to professional standards of honesty in all aspects of the work, including accuracy and integrity of the data, and acknowledgment of the assistance and materials provided by others.

  • obtain appropriate permissions for research on human subjects or live vertebrates.

  • provide your thesis advisor with a complete data set and copies of lab and field notebooks from the thesis research.

Guidelines for Thesis Advisors

Advisors serve as intellectual and professional mentors to their graduate students. This role includes advisement and support in the following areas: course and degree requirements at WWU, the research thesis, and development of professional skills required in biology (research, writing, communication, professional integrity). These responsibilities are described for the following roles: advisement, mentorship, and support for research activities, thesis preparation, and post-graduate efforts.


Advisors should:

  • be familiar with the Biology Graduate Handbook, general university policies pertaining to graduate students, and willing to facilitate finding out relevant information through the Graduate Program Advisor, Graduate Committee, Biology Chair, Graduate School, and other university resources.

  • be available to students before the start of the first quarter to give advice on class choices and to suggest some classes that are appropriate and useful, before first fall registration.

  • provide guidance on selecting thesis committee members.

  • lead (chair) all thesis committee meetings.

  • oversee the selection of courses, and the development of a plan of study (with student and committee input). Monitor the student’s progress of their coursework and completion of the plan of study.

  • oversee the development of the student’s thesis proposal.  Provide feedback and comments on a student's thesis proposal to help the student improve their communication skills.

  • provide training and resources to help student’s complete their thesis research.

  • inform and provide students with appropriate advice when their performance or lack of progress towards the degree is of concern.

  • inform students in advance about extended periods of reduced availability or complete unavailability, and make plans for how to communicate and provide support during such absences.

  • train students in techniques needed for their thesis research.

  • help students complete writing their thesis.  Provide feedback and comments on a student's thesis to help the student improve their communication skills.

  • help students prepare their exit seminar.  Provide feedback and comments on a student's thesis to help the student improve their communication skills.

  • help students prepare for their defense. 


Advisors should:

  • be receptive and responsive to the needs of the graduate student.

  • be available for one-on-one meetings throughout the student’s studies, and notify the student of extended periods of absence.

  • provide a safe and supportive atmosphere for meetings and discussions, including being open to discuss any problems in the working relationship and to make accommodations.

  • encourage students to interact with committee members and provide opportunities to meet and interact with scientific colleagues.

  • attend, if possible, all research-related presentations the student gives (including in Biol. 525).

  • promote the achievements of the graduate student, including nominating the student for TA or research awards when appropriate.

  • discuss the student’s career goals, and help them develop toward those goals, including post-graduate goals.

  • be the primary spokesperson for inquiries related to research projects in the lab (e.g., newspaper reporters).

Research Support

Advisors should:

  • guide the student in selecting a project of reasonable scope for a 2 year thesis, advise in the design of the project, and help keep the thesis project to a manageable size and scope in relation to funding and resources.

  • provide appropriate access to resources (laboratory space, equipment, materials and supplies, reagents, computers, access to software) to support the student’s research.

  • have a fair understanding of the skills and resources (financial and otherwise) necessary to complete a thesis project, OR help the student research some of these details in their first year.

  • communicate opportunities for funding for student thesis research and write letters of support for funding requests.

  • make sure that student obtains appropriate permissions for research on human subjects or live vertebrates, including collection permits.

  • accompany students on selected field trips, at least once at the beginning of the field season and possibly again later on, to help answer questions, problem-solve on the spot, and assess the feasibility and safety of field methods.

  • provide regular opportunities for the lab to meet, collaborate, discuss literature and questions, and problem-solve.

  • be open to alternate ideas and methods.

  • ensure there is a contingency plan, in the event that the original thesis topic doesn’t work.

  • be responsible for ensuring the student’s research is accurate, valid, and conforms to the highest professional standards.

Thesis Support

Advisors should:

  • provide timely, constructive and critical feedback on drafts of the proposal, funding requests, the thesis, and any papers/presentations from the thesis research.

  • return thesis materials to students in a timely manner (preferably within 2 weeks). This may involve setting a schedule for submission and efficient turn-around time for sections and drafts of thesis-related materials (drafts, grant proposals, etc.).

  • review drafts of individual sections of a thesis, as well as complete copies.

  • communicate expectations about publishing and format of final thesis draft.

  • attend graduate student seminars.

Post-graduate Support

Advisors should:

  • continue to promote and advocate for the graduate student.

  • write letters of recommendation.

  • help publish research results, if appropriate.

Guidelines for Committee Members

Committee members should:

  • be available for one-on-one advisory meetings.

  • attend committee meetings and research-related presentations (e.g., Biol. 525).

  • guide selection of a research project that is of reasonable scope for a 2-year thesis.

  • provided additional access to resources (e.g., laboratory space, equipment, materials, and supplies, reagents, computers, software, etc.).

  • communicate opportunities for funding the thesis research and contribute letters of support when requested.

  • help develop a contingency plan for the thesis.

  • return thesis drafts in a timely manner (2 weeks).


Guidelines for Graduate Student Representatives


  • Send occasional emails each quarter, sharing pertinent information from committee meetings, reminders about dept potlucks, etc, and soliciting grad student thoughts, concerns, etc. to be relayed to grad committee. These emails are sent to, all faculty committee members, and the Administrative Service Manager.

  • Assist in organizing and promoting annual grad-faculty-staff events, such as the fall and spring potlucks, and annual talent show (typically end of year).

  • Organize the voting of the graduate-student invited speaker, and provide the name and contact information of the selected speaker to the Department Chair.

  • Organize, promote, and facilitate the Annual Graduate Student Program Review at the end of the year (May). Find a time that works for all (or as many as possible) graduate students, talk to the Chair of Biology about ordering pizza, and reserve BI 415 for 2+ hrs.

  • Review documents from previous years. Come up with important points to review (i.e., find out if progress has been made).

  • Create and distribute an agenda for the meeting, including both previous issues and new ones (solicit ideas from other students). Be aware that meetings like this can degenerate into negative story-telling. So, it is important to use the agenda and facilitate in such a way that opinions and thoughts of all parties are heard, and everyone leaves feeling that their time was well spent. From initial email until the actual meeting, it is important to convey to all students that the meeting is confidential, and all meeting minutes and documents passed on to the Graduate Program Advisor will preserve anonymity. Individuals with very specific problems or grievances should be referred to Graduate Program Advisor or Department Chair. Scrupulous details should be recorded during the meeting, and a summary document created for the Graduate Program Advisor, addressing student opinions and thoughts on each of the topics covered at the meeting. This meeting is how changes get made!

  • Graduate representative elections - each fall, one representative (generally a second year) should choose to remain on the committee, and 3 new representatives should be elected (2 first years and 1 second year). Send an email requesting nominations, and if more people volunteer than positions are available for, hold elections. If possible, have at least one meeting at which new student representatives overlap with outgoing representatives.

  • Add to or edit this document as the position and responsibilities evolve, and pass on to Grad Program Advisor.

Conflict Resolution

In the rare event of a personal conflict with WWU faculty, staff, or students see the information about conflict resolution for helpful advice to resolve the conflict.

General Resources

Office Staff

The office staff provide assistance for email, office space, teaching, budgetary, and registration-related questions. See the Biology staff directory for more information.

Stockroom Staff

The stockroom staff provide support for certain teaching and research-related needs of graduate students. See the Biology staff directory for more information.


Go to the Key Request Form. You will need a key to your advisor’s lab, grad office, and TA room (you might need additional keys). Follow the instructions on the form to obtain your keys. There is $10 deposit for each key you request. At end of two years you will need to renew your key deposit.

Mailboxes, Mail Pick-up and Delivery

Each Biology Department graduate student has a mailbox located, which is currently located outside the grad office on the 4th floor. Please check your mailbox regularly, as university-related business and student assignments will be placed in your box.

Outgoing WWU related mail (on-campus and off-campus delivery) may be brought to the Biology office (BI 315).

Off-campus university-related mail should be placed in the blue Mail Services mailbag located below the bank of mailboxes. The mailroom will provide postage.

Campus mail envelopes are available for on-campus mail. Please note the person, department and proper mailstop on the envelope and place it in the black receptacle labeled “On Campus Mail” situated below the bank of mailboxes. Empty envelopes can be found under the bank of mailboxes and a list of mailstops is posted on the wall above the “On Campus Mail” receptacle.

WWU mailroom personnel pick up outgoing mail and deliver incoming (off-campus) mail once a day at approximately 10:30 a.m., Monday through Friday. Intercampus mail is delivered by Mail Services after 1 p.m.

WWU Mail Services is for WWU related business only. Do not use WWU Mail Service for personal mail. Please take your personal mail to the mailbox in front of the Viking Union.


There is a fax machine in the Biology Department office and the fax number is (360) 650-3148. The fax machine should be used for business purposes only. If a fax needs to be sent long distance, please see Mary Ann Merrill in the department office. If a fax is received for you, office personnel will place it in your mailbox.

Other Support Services

Scientific Technical Services features an electronics shop, machine and wood shop, and instrumentation center, all of which are available to support graduate student research. For more information visit their website.

Research and Sponsored Programs offers financial support for graduate student research, and submits grant proposals to extramural agencies on behalf of faculty and students. For more information visit their website.

The Graduate School provides funding to support graduate student travel to give presentations at meetings and conferences, via Ross Travel Grants. More information on the Ross Travel Grants visit this website.

The Hacherl Research and Writing Studio provides advice for students struggling with their writing. For more information visit their website.